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Chapter III

Chapter III. A Marxist Critique of Heidegger

The jargon of authenticity is a social disease and Adorno has set out to exterminate it.[1] Heidegger’s writings, which try to conceal their promiscuous relation to reactionary, “merely ontical” forces, are infected with the ideological thrust of a vocabulary that thrives on ambiguity. “Authenticity,” a characteristic term in the jargon which Heidegger shared with many politicians, theologians and conservative ideologues, abstracts from social causes of discontent by giving contemporary feelings of meaninglessness an ahistorical formulation. Heidegger shirks responsibility for the claim inherent in the word “authenticity” to be presenting a positive doctrine of the good life when he insists that he is using the word as a value-free technical term, even while exploiting its fascination. That the alleged meaninglessness of life invalidates all principles of how to live, serves only to attract people to a certain way of life. Adorno analyzes this process whereby the concepts of the jargon manage to give the pretense of dealing radically with the crucial issues of life, society and philosophy, while they merely substitute the aura of connotation-laden words for the required content. Their false appearance has, according to Adorno, led to the surprising appeal of Heidegger’s Being and Time and of the existentialism which it encouraged.

Reading Adorno, on the contrary, it is easy to be initially unimpressed. His style aims precisely at avoiding such thoughtless adherence to thoughts. Yet, what Adorno has to say has much of the urgency which in Heidegger’s writings tends to be illusory. Adorno’s critique of Heidegger, which cuts away the cancerous jargon to save the concerns which have become self-defeating, is of particular relevance to the attempt to learn from Heidegger and Marx together. The Jargon of Authenticity, oriented around Adorno’s and Heidegger’s comparative sensibilities to language, stands as a prolegomenon to the confrontation between the two mainstreams of twentieth-century continental thought.

Adorno’s Early Criticisms

The forty-odd years of Adorno’s stance towards phenomenology and Heidegger began in his student years, forming the basis for some of his first conversations with Horkheimer and Benjamin and culminating when he was twenty in a doctoral dissertation on Husserl. The critique of Husserlian phenomenology was later developed in more dialectical terms in Zur Metakritik der Erkenntnistheorie, which attacks the roots of many problems Adorno pointed to in Husserl’s student, Heidegger. Adorno’s first book, turning to another major influence on Heidegger, presents a rebuttal to existentialist ontology oriented on Kierkegaard, source of Heidegger’s existentialism. Schroyer’s forward to the translation of Jargon draws out this last connection.

Perhaps most interesting of Adorno’s early writings is a series of three essays composed shortly after the publication of Heidegger’s Being and Time but only recently made available in Adorno’s posthumous collected works. The first, a programmatic inaugural address on The Relevance of Philosophy delivered in 1931 when Adorno began teaching, reflects upon the contemporary situation of philosophy by evaluating the failings of the various schools of the day. This lecture is striking both in terms of the importance it attributes to Heidegger and the thoroughness with which it sees through his pretenses. Adorno deals here with three instances of the necessary failure of Heidegger’s accomplishments to live up to the promises of his rhetoric: Being and Time’s pathos of a radical new beginning is rejected by placing its problematic firmly within the context of the impasses reached by Simmel, Rickert, Husserl and Scheler; Heidegger’s ethos of anti-idealistic concreteness is shown to be betrayed by his systematic method and presentation in Being and Time; the flaunted escape from subject-object metaphysics is understood by Adorno as a reduction to pure subjectivity.

Adorno’s paper on The Idea of Natural-History, delivered a year later, views Heidegger’s concept of “historicity” – one which instantly grates on Marxist nerves – as a false reconciliation of nature and history, of eternal structures and contingent facts. For the ontological theory of history can only achieve an adequate interpretation of Being if it foregoes such orientation toward structures of possibility in favor of a radical exegesis of the actuality of beings in terms of their determinations within concrete social history.

Finally, Adorno’s Theses on the Language of the Philosopher criticizes Heidegger’s linguistic novelties in terms of the historical conditions on philosophic prose. According to Adorno’s theory, Heidegger’s terminological innovations flee from history without escaping it. Heidegger exploits a highly situated jargon as though it had ahistorical validity and absolutizes historical concepts within a destiny of Being which is unaffected by the social context. Consequently, despite his fondness for word plays and etymologies, his praise of the poets and his worship of language as the historical medium of being, Heidegger is accused by Adorno of lacking an aesthetic sensitivity to the social content of language, and this failing leaves him susceptible to the enticements of the jargon of authenticity and its unreflected provincialism. Anticipating the tack of Jargon, Adorno’s essay on language concludes that “all deceptive ontology is to be exposed by critique of language.”[2]

Dialectic of Enlightenment, written with Max Horkheimer during the war, exhibits significant parallels to Heidegger’s writings, although it never refers to existentialism, ontology or their prime spokesman. The project of tracing the concept of reason (scientific enlightenment, Vernunft, ratio, logos) from the pre-Socratics to the technological age in terms of literary and philosophical texts is as central to Adorno’s attempt to grasp the contemporary form of rationality, which had culminated in fascism, as to Heidegger’s essays of the same period which share that goal. This comparison suggests that the conflict expressed in Jargon is not a matter of disparate world views hurling insults, but that despite his polemical tone Adorno agrees with Heidegger on the present concerns of philosophy as well as on certain methodological issues. Yet there are crucial differences. The thesis which the Dialectic of Enlightenment substantiates, that the historic process of subject-formation has been accompanied by a de-subjectification through social forces and relations since time immemorial, is an implicit argument against ontology, whose concepts of man and Being cannot deal with the essential interpenetration in social history of that which these ontologized concepts leave abstract.

Adorno’s Methodology of Critique

That Adorno relates the development of rationality, the relationship of myth to enlightenment, and various other concerns which he shares with Heidegger to Marx’s analysis of capitalist relations of production while Heidegger maintains a strict primacy for the evolution of the ontological categories, indicates that Adorno was speaking for himself as well when he described Benjamin’s attitude toward Heidegger. Noting Benjamin and Heidegger’s shared rejection of idealist abstractions and formal generality, Adorno emphasized, however, that “the decisive differences between philosophers have always consisted in nuances; what is most bitterly irreconcilable is that which is similar but which thrives on different centers; and Benjamin’s relation to today’s accepted ideologies of the ‘concrete’ is no different. He (Benjamin) saw through them as the mere mask of conceptual thinking at its wit’s end, just as he also rejected the existential-ontological concept of history as the mere distillate left after the substance of the historical dialectic had been boiled away.[3]

Adorno seeks to uncover the “center” on which Heidegger’s analyses and their popularity thrive, for this center gives form and significance to the configuration of Heidegger’s insights. The comprehension of the relation of this center to society – and not directly Heidegger’s personal activity or class origins – provides the basis for a political judgment of Heidegger’s philosophy. This approach is characteristic of Adorno’s critical practice. According to his aesthetic theory, for instance, it is not the correspondence of individual contents of a work of art to specific social influences which accounts for the progressive or reactionary character of that work, but the way in which the work responds to prevailing social relations. Thus, in a letter to Walter Benjamin, Adorno writes, “I regard it as methodologically unfortunate to give conspicuous individual features from the realm of the superstructure a ‘materialistic’ turn by relating them immediately and perhaps even causally to corresponding features of the infrastructure. Materialistic determination of cultural traits is only possible if it is mediated through the total social process.”[4]

Adorno’s philosophical interpretations proceed by the same maxims. Heidegger’s work is treated neither simplistically nor deterministically; it is neither rejected out of hand as mere bourgeois ideology nor uncritically accepted as autonomous contemplation. It is comprehended, rather, as an arena from which the forces at work throughout society are scarcely excluded and in which any truth which manages to make an appearance will necessarily be conditioned by those forces – in one way or another.

Clearly, the penetration of social relations into Heidegger’s system can only be revealed through a thorough grasp of the philosophical propositions, but these are not taken as ends in themselves: between the lines a social force-field must be reconstructed. In a tribute to his boyhood friend, Siegfried Kracauer, Adorno summarizes this approach to philosophical interpretation: “If I later, when reading the traditional philosophical texts, let myself be less impressed by their unity and systematic coherence, but rather concerned myself with the play of the forces which worked on one another under the surface of each closed doctrine and considered the codified philosophies as in each case force-fields, then it was certainly Kracauer who inspired me to it.”[5] More than anything else, this oblique approach to philosophies – especially apparent in Jargon, which relates Heidegger to society in terms of the medium of a politically-loaded language-game – makes Adorno’s critique of Heidegger difficult to grasp.

Adorno’s Mature Criticisms

For years Adorno avoided the frontal attack on Heidegger anticipated in the early essays. The systematic intention of Dialectic of Enlightenment, probably to be attributed to Horkheimer, was uncharacteristic of Adorno. He spent his most productive years composing focused essays. Numerous references to Heidegger are sprinkled throughout these studies; the important discussions of Kafka and Beckett, for instance, interpret their subject matter as poetic critiques of Heidegger, in explicit renunciation of the popular existentialist readings. When, near the end of his life, Adorno did present his conception of philosophy systematically, Heidegger was there front and center. Negative Dialectics, the only extensive mature work completed unless one counts the monograph on Alban Berg, devotes the first of its three parts to Adorno’s “relation to ontology,” a critique of Heidegger which provides the starting point for Adorno’s own “anti-system.” Perhaps the most significant contrast of Heidegger and Adorno would be one based on the latter’s posthumously published Aesthetische Theorie. Such a study would, however, have few explicit connections to draw upon. Informed by the philosophical debates, it would have to note the shared rejection of subjectivistic aesthetics and evaluate the relation of art to society in the respective theories. Short of this, Negative Dialectics and its off-shoot, The Jargon of Authenticity, will have to be accepted as the definitive statements of Adorno’s critique of Heidegger.

According to the introduction to Negative Dialectics,[6] the task of philosophy in our times is the transformation of subjectivistic thinking by means of the subjective strength of the critical individual. The subsequent priority of substance over the knowing subject implies a primary concern with the concrete, which has been distorted under the demands of a coercive social totality. Although method would then be determined by the subject matter, analysis could not proceed without concepts. This linguistic requirement presupposes a critique of the philosophical tradition, that is, of German idealism and of the inept criticism of idealism by positivism, phenomenology and existentialism. While these goals may capture much of Heidegger’s stated intentions, according to Adorno’s account, Heidegger, like Husserl before him, has failed to deal adequately with the complexities involved in grasping the concrete.

In Negative Dialectics Adorno suggests how the concrete is missed by Heidegger’s simplistic scheme, which underlies and supports an elaborate obscurantism. The three poles of Heidegger’s system – beings, human existence and Being – interpenetrate each other only formally, without taking into account their configuration which defines their content. The concrete social history in which these poles, as dialectical, intertwine and develop according to Hegel and, in effect, Marx, disappears in Heidegger’s presentation. Thereby their present forms are not clearly situated in history; as essential and eternal, they are, thinks Adorno, glorified and affirmed. The oft-bemoaned quietism of Heidegger’s later writings is thus revealed by Adorno to be non-accidental: it is a consequence of the very approach of the ontological project, one which excludes social content from the start.

This criticism is particularly interesting because Adorno has also been accused of praxis paralysis and because Heidegger can respond as Adorno has that his emphasis on contemplation is a reaction against a preponderance of thoughtless pragmatic activity in present society. The difference between the two philosophies is that receptivity becomes a dead-end in Heidegger’s system, rather than a corrective moment which negates only the distortions and limitations of social practice. The philosophical source of the difference is that Heidegger’s approach reacts too simplistically to the dilemmas of post-Hegelian philosophy, attempting to skirt the problem of a non-idealistic mediation of subject and object, of thought and society, of theory and practice. Where Adorno radicalizes Hegel’s dialectic, redefining it in terms of the non-identity of word and object and articulating the mediations involved more thoroughly than even Hegel, Heidegger falls behind Hegel, hypostatizing language along with Being outside the influence of that reality which they characterize.

This theoretical point has practical consequences for Heidegger’s philosophy insofar as he fails to reflect on the relation of society to his language. Heidegger’s failure to deal adequately with the present social context of philosophy is perhaps Adorno’s strongest indictment of him: his ontology is an unfortunate response to social conditions in which people feel powerless. In the guise of a critique of subjectivistic will, it fetishizes the illusion of powerlessness and thereby serves those in power. Following a restorative thrust, Heidegger’s formulation of a real felt need merely assumes a solution and thus serves to perpetuate the underlying problems according to Adorno’s analysis. Strengthening conservative ideology, Heidegger’s approach avoids those issues which point to the realm of society, an arena in which people could possibly exert some joint control.

The Jargon of Authenticity is more focused. Unlike Negative Dialectics, which addresses itself to the central topoi of Heidegger’s thought as a whole, Jargon seems to limit itself to an area of questionable importance, although it brings an impressive array of considerations to bear. Dealing with Heidegger’s pivotal “question of Being” only peripherally, it is preoccupied by the accompanying doctrine of man. Further, it zeroes in on terms and themes which Heidegger himself dropped after Being and Time. Thus, of the four sections of Adorno’s essay (beginning on pages 3, 49, 92 and 130), the first reflects on the jargon in the hands of Heidegger’s predecessors, colleagues and followers, barely mentioning Heidegger himself. The next section fits Heidegger into this picture, but notes that Heidegger protects himself against the imputation of the jargon’s worst offences even while exploiting its appeal. Another part is devoted to the concept of authenticity, which Heidegger never again used so freely after the reaction to his first book. In the final pages, the choice of the analysis of death as an illustration of Heidegger’s procedure involves Adorno in the non-intuitive argument that people might overcome death in a future social arrangement. Even if this is possible – and in Jargon it remains an empty possibility – Heidegger has still articulated the importance of finitude as an essential feature of the human condition as we know it. Concentrating as he does on the social consequences of Heidegger’s concepts of authenticity and death, Adorno seems to miss the role these play in Heidegger’s ontology. For authentic Being-towards-death is less a moral stance in Heidegger’s system than a condition of the possibility of valid ontological reflection.

Jargon thus seems open to the very criticism it levels against Being and Time, namely that the pragmatic impact on the reader is not substantiated by the propositional evidence. Just as the popularity of Heidegger’s work was attributed by Adorno largely to moral connotations explicitly excluded from the epistemological discourse, so it seems that Adorno’s own essay gives the impression of utterly destroying Heidegger’s philosophy when it merely picks at incidental themes without understanding their import.

Viewed from the perspective of Negative Dialectics, however, Heidegger’s analysis of human existence is symptomatic of his later investigations of tool, artwork, thing and word, even of Being itself. Although the structures of man, thing and being include, on Heidegger’s account, relations to each other, the concrete social history in terms of which they effect each other through these otherwise abstract relations is left out of consideration. This fault can be demonstrated just as meaningfully in terms of Heidegger’s early Daseinsanalytik as with the later Seinsfrage, and the political implications which follow from either are more clearly drawn out of the former. In short, Jargon’s oblique social attack on the linguistic aspect of a supposedly moralistic part of Heidegger’s early thought succeeds in making thoroughly problematic many central characteristics of Heidegger’s approach and system in general.

Significantly, Adorno’s social critique of Heidegger is not simply divorced from a philosophical one. Rather, it underscores the philosophical failure of Heidegger’s thought: its lack of concern for the very social dimension in which it becomes self-defeating. This particular failure necessitates the confrontation between Heidegger’s and Marxist critical theory of society. By determining the social limitations of Heidegger’s thought, Adorno does not discard Heidegger, but attunes the strivings of Heidegger’s philosophical concepts to their social content, measuring the distance between their claims and their achievements. Only thereby can Marxism interpret Heidegger’s insights within the context of Marxism’s own method and fruitfully comprehend both the progressive and the reactionary force of Heidegger’s socially-situated path of thought.

[1] Theodor W. Adorno, The Jargon of Authenticity, tr. K. Tarnowski & F. Will (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973). Cf. Theodor W. Adorno, Jargon der Eigentlichkeit (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1965).

[2] Theodor W. Adorno, “Thesen über die Sprache des Philosophen,” Gesammelte Schriften I (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1973).

[3] Theodor W. Adorno, A portrait of Walter Benjamin,” Prisms (London: Neville Spearman, 1967), p. 231.

[4] Theodor W. Adorno, letter to Benjamin dated 10 November 1938, New Left Review, October 1973, No. 81, p. 71.

[5] Theodor W. Adorno, “Der wunderliche Realist: Über Siegfried Kracauer,” Noten zur Literatur III (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1965).

[6] Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics (New York: Seabury, 1973).


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